Are Conservative Voices Hijacking the Pro-Palestine Movement in Pakistan?

When calls for Palestine’s freedom from Israeli occupation began in mid-May, hashtags and supportive posts circulated around social media, demanding for the international community to intervene in the atrocities being committed against Palestinian people. Despite censorship from social media platforms against Palestinian activists, Pakistan saw its own protests against Zionism, with protests held in Karachi, Islamabad and Lahore on May 17. In Taxila and Attock, demonstrations and protests were also held to show solidarity with Palestine. However, as the voices fighting for freedom from occupation got louder, often conservative voices attempted to hijack the cause with sexism, transphobia and anti-Semitism, deflecting the conversation away from the larger cause.

Moral Policing Women

As is the case with any patriarchal society, moral policing of women was again a large part of the protests. Similar to this year’s Aurat March, when women were scrutinized for ‘vulgar’ placards and dancing in public, pro-Palestine protests were unfortunately no exception to the often sexist lens through which society views women.

A female reporter from Leader TV, a digital news channel, covered a protest that occurred in Lahore. The video, which can be found on YouTube, featured lingering shots on women’s bodies. The reporter said, “I will show you Muslim women’s clothing, shorts were worn here, sleeveless  [shirts] were worn here, people are dancing with a sound system […] In the corners,  [men and women] are having conversations that cannot be had at home or on the phone.”

The reporter then went on to interview several people, questioning some about their opinions on the way other women were dressed and whether it was appropriate for women in an Islamic state to dress a certain way when advocating for Palestinian Muslims. People who tried to defend the clothing as a personal choice were not given the opportunity to speak, with the reporter snatching the mic away from them. Not only were women filmed without their consent, but their clothing and behavior was shamed with misogynistic implications about their character as the camera uncomfortably lingered on them. Given that many women in Pakistan already face restrictions from their families about clothing and socializing, their efforts to assert physical autonomy being undermined on camera under the pretense of caring about Muslim Palestinians becomes all the more unethical.

It’s important to note that the reporter pushing this narrative was a woman as well, displaying how women can unfortunately also push their own internalized misogyny to undermine the efforts of female protestors advocating for freedom.

Something similar happened with Mahira Khan, one of the most popular actresses in Pakistan, who was at a pro-Palestine protest. People took to social media, worried about something more than the apartheid system that oppresses Palestinians; the lack of a scarf, or dupatta, around Khan’s neck.

Another incident that saw sexism override pro-Palestinian voices was in the case of Alizeh Shah, a Pakistani actress whose pictures in a sleeveless tank top went viral on Twitter. Again, the moral policing began and #AlizehShah started trending, with Twitter users degrading and shaming her for her choice in clothing. Another set of users started to compare Shah with a Palestinian activist, Maryam al-Afifi, judging their physical appearance and which woman, in their eyes, was a better Muslim woman based on their clothing.

Many people pointed out that judging an activist based on her looks was deeply sexist and comparing her to an actress in a competition of appearances was misogynistic. Others pointed out that religious policing does nothing to help the Palestinians that these commenters were so concerned about. However, this did not stop such tweets from being retweeted and liked by many users.

Anti-Semitic Posts

CNN in May fired Pakistan-based contributor, Adeel Raja, for his unquestionably anti-Semitic tweet after it garnered widespread scrutiny and criticism. “Adeel Raja’s reporting contributed to some newsgathering efforts from Islamabad. However, in light of these abhorrent statements, he will not be working with CNN again in any capacity,” CNN said in a statement.

Unfortunately, it was easy for people to take Raja’s lead, as anti-Semitic tweets and posts began surfacing on social media, praising Adolf Hitler and instigating hatred against Jewish people. There was also repeated renouncement of India, which was perceived as supporting Israel, on both social media and at protests.

The fight that started as a demand for the freedom of Palestinians from apartheid had turned into an effort to educate a deeply nationalistic country about why anti-Semitism is unacceptable and may hurt the movement from an international perspective. Officials in the US have said that anti-Semitic crime has risen in the aftermath of the escalation in violence in Palestine. The Anti-Defamation League said that it found over 17,000 tweets using variations of the phrase “Hitler was right” on Twitter between May 7 and May 14.

The discussion about the difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism is nuanced, as pro-Israel lobbies and supporters in developed countries have conflated any criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. The usage of genuinely anti-Semitic remarks can then be used to justify this stance. The unfortunate outcome of this debate, when Palestinian voices are finally being heard, has been the sidelining and deflecting of said voices to discuss the ethics of how Israel should be criticized, if at all.

Another manifestation of nationalism came in the form of comparing India and Pakistan. An image went viral that mentioned how Pakistan trended #IndiaNeedsOxygen in solidarity with the country, which continues to suffer through the coronavirus pandemic. The text in the image then compared this to how #IndiaStandsWithIsrael was trending in the country, implying that the country was siding with the Israeli authorities. Social media users took this as a sign that confirmed their already negative notions of India as an Islamaphobic and violent country.

What these users failed to realize, however, was that #FreePalestine also trended in India with 1.3 million tweets, #IsraeliTerrorism with 973.6k tweets and #GenocideWithGaza with 1.4 million tweets. The viral posting of the image was testament to how activism for Palestine eventually became about confirming nationalistic biases that Pakistani citizens believe about India and, as seen above, religious biases against women.


Another way conservative voices hijacked the cause was literally. One trans woman detailed on her Twitter account how she was sidelined at the protests for Palestine in Karachi which she helped organize. According to her, she was violently assaulted, verbally abused and thrashed by a reporter from Dunya News and several other people outside the Press Club. She said in her tweet that they were upset about her Shia, Baloch and Khwajasira identities.

She said that young students and queer people helped organize the protests, but their vision was sidelined due to the presence of influential members within the journalism community and “neoliberal NGO activism” that tried to hijack the stage and pollute their narrative. She mentioned that the organizers tried to distance themselves from contentious slogans, at the protests as the movement is not meant to support anti-Semitism.

Ethical Activism

The mobilisation to advocate on-ground for worthy movements is one of the most major results of social media activism, but it cannot be limited to certain groups that society deems acceptable. Making engagement in protests conditional on the lifestyle or personal choices of people results in the creation of unsafe and inaccessible spaces for those that are already marginalized in the country.

A common misconception that seemed to surround the pro-Palestine protests about women was that those that did not dress according to societal norms should not be advocating for Palestinian freedom. This line of thinking assumes that, firstly, the Palestinian struggle for liberation is a strictly Muslim cause rather than a humanitarian issue. The truth is that the movement needs attention from all people, regardless of their religion, gender or nationality, and needs to be addressed internationally by world leaders from countries that have facilitated the Israeli occupation or helped the Palestinian movement. The second assumption is that women who dress based on their own preference rather than social norms could not have genuine concern about the Palestinian cause, which on its face is an ostensibly baseless statement.

Unfortunately, these protests have shown that certain groups have embraced this movement as an opportunity to further their own sexism and anti-Semitism. From a local perspective, this is nothing new, as time and time again we’ve seen the moral and religious policing that occurs within our own communities. From an international viewpoint, these outdated sentiments do more harm than good and reflect poorly on the movement within Pakistan, especially for those that have put in the effort to organize demonstrations around the country. Not only do they harm the local groups and communities that are the targets of hateful rhetoric, they also justify and validate the beliefs that anti-Muslim people and Zionists hold about Muslims, especially when the rhetoric is being linked so closely with the Palestinian movement for freedom.

Despite this, many Pakistanis still continue to advocate for the cause, centering Palestinian voices and questioning mis/disinformation surrounding the movement. It’s important to remember the cause that the country has finally mobilised to advocate for and the people that are still struggling to survive.

Romessa Nadeem is a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy, which runs the Digital Rights Monitor.

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